It’s not only the title that owes a debt to Hitchcock: Dial M for Murdoch, the British Labour MP Tom Watson’s vitriolic book about the phone-hacking scandal, is filled with shadowy threats, corrupt police, blackmail and, of course, enough illicit eavesdropping and office-bugging to fill the Watergate Hotel.
The book, co-written with journalist Martin Hickman, was released in London today, just hours before it was announced that Rupert Murdoch and his son James would testify next week at the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking and press ethics.
Mr. Watson is a longtime foe of Rupert Murdoch, whose News International titles are at the centre of the tabloid scandal, and who is compared in the book to a pirate and Louis XIV, the Sun King. Those are among the more flattering descriptions.
“Rupert Murdoch was not running a normal business, but a shadow state,” the book says, and its employees “blagged, bribed, spied and bullied, and imposed their will through blackmail, corruption and intimidation.”
Mr. Watson sits on the cross-party Culture, Media and Sport Select committee, which has been investigating the phone-hacking claims and is expected to issue its long-delayed report within weeks. Among his specific allegations about this shadowy web: a half a dozen journalists from Mr. Murdoch’s (now-defunct) News of the World were assigned to dig up dirt on the 12 members of the committee – “Who was gay, who had affairs, anything we can use,” according to the paper’s lead investigative reporter Neville Thurlbeck. Politicians who criticized News International titles were hounded in its pages. Senior police were too afraid of exposure to conduct a thorough investigation, until the case blew wide open last summer with revelations that a News of the World operative had likely hacked the phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler.
Mr. Watson, the MP for West Bromwich East, clearly believes he has been persecuted for his dogged pursuit of claims that News International journalists eavesdropped on celebrities and ordinary citizens, and bribed public officials and police to obtain information. He says he was harassed by Mr. Murdoch’s reporters, who called him “Two-Dinner Tommy” and accused him of being a drunk. His marriage broke up; he felt his life was under threat – melodramatic, he admits, but not without cause. (Mr Watson is not a passive observer, of course: He was the MP who accused James Murdoch, then chair of News International, of running a mafia outfit during Mr. Murdoch’s testimony before the committee last November.)
Quite apart from the personal grievances, Mr. Watson’s book makes the case that the tabloid imbroglio, which now encompasses a dozen different investigations, is “the worst scandal in British public life in decades, touching almost every pillar of British life: the royal family, the government, the civil service, the courts, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and, of course, the media.”
Many of his allegations are familiar, but are outlined here in comprehensive detail. There was collusion between the press and police, and between press – particularly the Murdoch titles the Sun and News of the World – and politicians. Only days after David Cameron became Prime Minister, he writes, Rupert Murdoch came to visit – literally through the back door of 10 Downing Street.
Labour politicians as well as Conservatives answered Mr. Murdoch’s summons. For decades, Mr. Watson writes, the Australian media mogul, now an American citizen, “held the balance of power,” in British politics: “All prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron turned a blind eye when they should have intervened and allowed his dominance to rise, deal by deal, election by election.”
As well, the book claims that London’s police were at best ineffectual (by refusing to adequately investigate hacking claims earlier) and at worst actively colluding in the corruption, by accepting bribes from news organizations in return for information. “Scotland Yard’s reputation for competence and probity has been so badly damaged, it will take years to repair,” write Mr. Watson and Mr. Hickman.
Even a book containing such grave allegations will have its share of luridly engrossing details: David Beckham has thirteen cell phones, for example, and it’s possible that a journalist was listening to each one. As well, there was a pre-Christmas dinner in 2010 at the house of Rebekah Brooks, then head of News International, in which she, James Murdoch, David Cameron and Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson did not discuss the Murdochs’ bid to take over the cable broadcaster BSkyB. What did they talk about instead? Sausage rolls.
The phone-hacking scandal shows no sign of abating: Ms. Brooks is reported to be one of four journalists whose cases have been referred to British prosecutors for possible criminal charges. And today, the Sun’s royal editor, Duncan Larcombe, who was until recently the paper’s defence editor, was arrested by police investigating illegal payments to public officials. Next week all eyes will be on London once again when Rupert Murdoch and James (who has recently left his posts as chair of BSkyB and News International) appear before the Leveson inquiry. It’s a safe bet that Mr. Watson will be among the many people tuning in.